Burma: one synagogue and much beauty

Burma: one synagogue and much beauty

The last remaining synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua, is beautiful, charming and welcoming. (Photo by Ben G. Frank)
The last remaining synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua, is beautiful, charming and welcoming. (Photo by Ben G. Frank)

[Editor’s note: The military government of Burma changed the country name to “Myanmar” in 1989. According to the State Department, it remains U.S. policy to refer to the country as Burma in most contexts.]

“This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about,” wrote Rudyard Kipling.

How correct he was. Visiting is like touring a country and seeing it exactly as it looked 50 or so years ago.

“It’s just like stepping back in time to another day and age,” said Donald and Joyce Bloom of Boynton Beach, Fla., who just returned from a trip there.

Visitors are flocking there, the country has changed little since British colonial times, and Travel + Leisure magazine is calling Burma “Destina-

tion of the Year for 2015.”

Long isolated from the outside world, this Asian nation has undergone a political metamorphosis, so much so that with U.S. diplomatic relations resumed a few years back, the country which borders on Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Laos and China, has become an in place for travelers. Exotic, it remains “the land of the golden pagodas,” as it widely called.

Most travelers head for the main city, Yangon — we know it as Rangoon. Foremost among the marvels of this city is Shwedagon, the enormous, gold-plated pagoda, the holiest Buddhist shrine in Burma; it is the chief place of pilgrimage in the Buddhist world and a tourist delight.

“A golden mystery … a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun…” wrote Kipling. The dean of travel writers, Norman Lewis, considered this pagoda, “the most brilliant spectacle” he had ever seen.

Shwedagon stands 326 feet high, with 10 sections, including the base. Walking clockwise around the exterior of the structure that looks like an upside-down cone, I see that family groups pick their station to pray. Here, Burmese people are enjoying cool breezes. Parents come with young children, some of whom are novices of Buddhism and dressed in monk’s garb.

Ultimately, a trip to Burma is mostly about the people: “Always smiling; always trying to help, bending over backwards to help tourists,” is the way the Blooms put it.

I agree. They are wonderful people who welcome strangers to this nation surrounded by Buddhist stupas, Hindu temples, Christian churches and Muslim mosques, and the last remaining synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua, located in Yangon at No. 85 26th St.

Home to a small Jewish community, the synagogue, whose name means “brings forth salvation,” is about 100 years old and is open every day.

And who is keeping this tiny Jewish community of about eight Jewish families and a small Israel Embassy staff alive? Until his death last month at the age of 65, Moses Samuels, known in the neighborhood as Than Lwin, was always on hand. He was often seen on 26th St. greeting his fellow Burmese, who recognize that he and his son, Sammy Samuels, have carried on their shoulders the weight of Jewish history in Burma.

Sammy Samuels, who lives in New York City and Rangoon, is considered the driving force as he raises funds for the synagogue.

Together with his late father, the younger Samuels established “Myanmar Shalom Travels,” whose mission it is “to keep the Jewish spirit alive in Burma.” The firm’s profits go to the synagogue.

When he is in town, he conducts services in Hebrew. The younger man, whose name in Burmese is Aung Soe Lwin, was graduated with high honors from Yeshiva University.

He helps in the synagogue and works on business projects, now that Burma has opened up to the West, including aiding in building the city’s tourist infrastructure. He has established two small hotels, York Residence and Lotus Boutique House in Rangoon.

The interior of the synagogue, with its beautiful stained glass windows, stands similar in style to the grand Magen David synagogue in Calcutta, India, with its soaring ceiling, memorial lamps suspended in midair, pale beams over a carved bima, located in the center of the prayer hall, and surrounded by benches for the worshippers. Above is a women’s gallery.

Happily, from time to time, there is a minyan, the result of someone having to recite a memorial prayer, or, on occasion, a group of Israeli, American or Australian Jews arriving during the tourist season at the synagogue, which remains one of 188 sites on the list of Yangon Heritage Buildings.

A few years ago, mostly Jews visited this house of worship. But, “we now also have many non-Jewish visitors coming to see the building,” Sammy Samuels said, adding. “Yangon Synagogue ranks third out of 87 attractions in Yangon.”

Once, several thousand Jews called Burma home. The first Jew in Burma was Solomon Gabirol, who served as a commissar in the army of King Alaungpaya (1752-60). During the years, more Jews followed and engaged in the teak trade, many becoming prosperous. Jewish gem merchants visited this lush and exotic country for diamonds, rubies, bejeweled gold ornaments, pearls and gold bangles. Rubies, jade and handcrafted items still head the list of tourist purchases.

In the mid-19th century, David Sassoon and his co-religionists, known as Baghdadis, arrived in India and the Far East, bringing investments and connections of an extensive trading network which included Burma.

Within decades of the British arrival in the 1880s, life for Jews would be pleasant. Jews lived comfortably under the benign mantle of the British Empire. Those tranquil days ended when the Japanese bombed Rangoon in December 1941 and invaded the country. Jews and thousands of Burmese fled to India. When peace came, only several hundred Jews returned to bombed-out Rangoon.

After 1948, a friendship existed between Israel and Burma. But in 1962, General Ne Win overthrew the civilian government, set up a military dictatorship, nationalized industry, declared a policy of strict self-reliance and neutrality, and isolated Burma from the world, including Israel. Nearly all the Jews departed.

Today, Jews are returning — so far about 100 expats from Israel.

The best way to describe this nation of about 53 million people is calm, though the enticing markets sometimes grow noisy; in addition, there is the cacophony of the Burmese street vendors. One can bargain for local crafts at the covered Bogyoke Aung San; formerly Scott’s Market. The newsstands reflect the opening and beginnings of democracy and one revels at the photos and newspaper pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and symbol of democracy who was freed five years ago from house arrest in Rangoon.

Numerous and varied tours of the country are available. Myanmar Shalom Travels also offers a Jewish Heritage Tour, which includes the synagogue.

Ben G. Frank, travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the recently published Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press); The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press); and other Jewish travel guides.